602 Southbridge St., Route 20, Auburn
The demise of the Piccadilly Pub empire signaled the end of an era of casual low-cost dining in central Massachusetts that started back in the early 1970s. Its continuous growth was based upon a reputation for value and quality. Who didn’t like the Pic?
Then, early last year, it all came to a screeching halt.
But in Auburn, the original owner has taken things back to their roots by renaming and re-opening the pub that stands on the corner of Route 20. On the evening a friend and I sat down for dinner at this “new” enterprise, Bentley Pub, we had the good fortune of being served by Fraser, who worked for the Piccadilly group forever and was pleased to offer a brief history of the place.
In name it may have changed, but Bentley’s decor is pleasingly retro, with lots of private-feeling nooks swathed in lustrous knotty pine. It gleams in shiny golden tones. Overhead are massive wooden beams set on brick piers. Hanging pots of ivy contribute to the ’70s-ish feel.
Fortunately, Bentley’s menu isn’t a holdover from the Age of Abba. Back then, fancy beer was anything skunky from Europe. The age of micro-breweries has changed all that, and Bentley’s has a respectable offering. I chose a glass of Third Shift Amber Lager from Fort Worth, Texas. This clear, deep amber brew was topped with a half-inch of head and had bright, bitter flavor.
In true Piccadilly tradition, we were served bowls of salted popcorn and, to my astonishment, a plate of Ritz crackers with a small crock of cottage cheese dip, spicy with pepper sauce. Now that’s something I haven’t seen in decades! Bentley’s was zestier than the old recipe and remains as addictive as ever.
My friend started his meal with a cup of Lobster Bisque; the menu noted it was flavored with a touch of sherry. Normally, I avoid anything “touched” by sherry, but with each spoonful, my friend raved, “This bisque is extraordinary! Full of lobster flavor!”
I grabbed a spoon for a sampling. Shreds of lobster meat were evenly distributed throughout the creamy mixture, and flavors were perfectly balanced to showcase the delicate seafood.
This delightful start to our meal was followed by another surprising high point, Bentley’s Crab Cakes. Proclaimed by the menu as 100 percent Canadian lump crabmeat, two cakes were pan-fried to a crusty, golden brown on each side and, for lack of starchy binders, just flaked apart with flavorful crabmeat.
The only off note was the lemon aioli sauce served in small crock. Any aioli I’ve had (or made) is egg yolk-based ~ mayonnaise from the jar or freshly made with, perhaps, some garlic, lemon and dijon. Bentley’s was pure white, and when I inquired, I was told that it was cream cheese, sour cream and lemon. Tasty, yes; aioli, not in a traditional sense.
One of the blackboard specials was a baked scallop dish. Piquing my interest, I asked Fraser for some additional information. Her reply swept us up into a lavish world of lemony butter sauce, perfect scallops and a tasty crumb crust. She was so vivid and in love with this dish that when she walked away, my friend and I just stared at each other and gasped, “Did that really just happen?” Such enthusiasm is a wonderful thing.
Of course, I ordered the Scallop Casserole Special.
A dozen sea scallops came in a round baking dish delivered directly from a fiery-hot oven. The coating of crumbs had formed a crunchy brown crust that encased the still-tender scallops in a light lemon butter sauce. My meal came with delicious, fresh, garlicky green beans and Bentley’s rice pilaf ~ like traditional pilaf, only with flecks of sweet red pepper.
My dining companion was torn with indecision. Deep Fried Seafood Platter or Whole Belly Fried Clams? Again, Fraser made this decision a snap, “With the platter you get everything! Clams, shrimp, haddock and big sea scallops. Yeah… you gotta have that!”
And so it was. He reported the Seafood Platter as huge, fried in light, fresh oil, so that each piece of seafood retained its unique flavor. Four to six specimens of each type of seafood were mounded over a bed of french fries. Fraser boxed up the leftovers for my friend to take home.
Bentley’s has everything going for it: location, an atmosphere that encourages groups of family and friends and talented professionals on staff. Beyond all that, Bentley’s cuisine takes the Pub format to new heights.